HC Deb 13 April 1984 vol 58 cc706-12 2.31 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I wish to raise the right-to-buy case of Mr. E. Bacon of 6 Periton road, Eltham, London, SE9, but first I shall give a brief general background to the case.

Although my council of Greenwich is controlled by another party, I try to have not only correct but reasonably friendly relations with the authority. After all, we are both elected to serve the interests of the residents, ratepayers and, in many cases, the tenants of the borough. Indeed, the motto of Greenwich is, "We govern by serving."

Under the 1980 right-to-buy legislation, many tenants applied to buy their homes. Greenwich council originally took the view that it would not abide by the law, but when it eventually agreed that it would abide by it, it created all kinds of delays and put obstacles in the way of many tenants who wished to buy their homes.

The council put forward arguments about service charges and tried to exclude the sale of garages, even though that meant excluding a garage built on land that was clearly let as part of a home. Some cases are still outstanding. One involves a tenant who is trying to buy the gate and path which runs adjacent to his house but which the council still believes should be regarded as common land.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for being here to answer the debate. I thank him publicly for the efforts that he and his Department have made, including, on occasions, consulting Greenwich council. On behalf of many tenants and ex-tenants, I say a public "Thank you" to my hon. Friend and all who have been concerned for the amount of success that they have managed to achieve. In each case it might have been possible for Greenwich council to be obdurate and to take county court action but in the main the council has in the end shown itself able to decide on a reasonable course of action.

Mr. Bacon's father was once the tenant of 6 Periton road. Mr. Bacon junior, if I may call him that, has lived there all his life. His father used to use some of the land behind the houses as an allotment. After the war the allotments were used by the tenants in the area, but in the 1950s it was decided that they should not continue as allotments but should be allocated to the gardens of the houses forming an inverse square around what had been the allotment site. Every part of the old allotments, and the service alleys, are now incorporated in somebody's garden. It became clear that the land which had been let with his home to Mr. Bacon senior had continued to be fenced and had been used for probably 30 years by the two Mr. Bacons.

In 1966, the present Mr. Bacon—Mr. E. Bacon—was granted a tenancy by Greenwich council. I have asked the council, giving, I believe, reasonable notice, for any evidence to show that any part of the land which Mr. E. Bacon has used as his garden, has been fenced as his garden and has been drawn as his garden on ordnance survey maps has not at any time since he was granted his tenancy been part of his garden. No written evidence has been given to me. I have received only an assertion that it was allowed to him on licence. I do not intend to get involved in detailed legal technicalities as, if the matter is not resolved, it might go to court—although I have an assurance that no court hearing has been set down. I believe that I am therefore free to speak in general terms. I shall not go as far as I could because, even if I have the freedom to do so, I would not want to prejudge any eventual action.

No written evidence has been given to Mr. E. Bacon or me to the effect that part of Mr. Bacon's garden was separately allowed for his use under licence. Therefore, from 1966 until 1981, everyone assumed that the land was part of Mr. Bacon's tenancy. As part of his tenancy, Greenwich council had no choice but to sell it to him as part of his right-to-buy application. Even if the council had told him that it was let under licence in 1966—it did not—I believe that, having been under constant cultivation by the family for 30 years or possibly more, Mr. Bacon would still have been able to claim that the land was let to him as part of his tenancy. However, we need not touch that hypothesis because Greenwich council did not at any stage from 1966 to 1981 advise, inform or give notice to Mr. Bacon that the land was anything other than part of his garden. Anyone who went along to the area and asked, "Whose land is this?" would have been told, "It is Mr. E. Bacon's."

Mr. Bacon put in his application to buy and Greenwich as usual, did not respond within the time limit laid down in the Housing Act 1980. We let that pass because, sadly, that was the case with thousands of people who applied to buy in the borough of Greenwich. A few months later, presumably under general instruction from the council, a council official told Mr. Bacon that part of his garden would not be sold to him. I assume that that official believed that a licence had been granted to Mr. E. Bacon at some stage after 1966—that was a false assumption as there was no such record from 1966. Mr. Bacon then discovered that a neighbour—I do not want to say anything against the neighbour as this case applies purely to Greenwich council's handling of the matter and what the House provided in the 1980 Act—was informed that he could take down Mr. Bacon's fence.

I think that Greenwich council has forgotten that the 1980 Act also contained a tenants' charter which no longer allowed local authorities to take back, at will, Iand that was let to a tenant. Here again Greenwich council is out of order and ignoring legislation passed by the House—I cannot believe that it is ignorant of the legislation. Mr. Bacon protested and matters continued until he came under severe pressure to complete the contract to buy at least that part of the house and land which Greenwich council was eventually prepared to sell to him.

Hon. Members who are lawyers may be willing to stand up to the authority of the London borough of Greenwich and may have legal advisers with as clear an understanding of the law as I have. However, Mr. Bacon, presumably after consultation with, if not the advice of, his legal advisers decided that it was better to go ahead with the purchase so that he could at least have his house. If necessary, he could then sell it to move elsewhere or pass it on to his children—the sort of reasons people consider when applying for the right to buy.

The allotments incorporated in other people's gardens could be sold as part of the right to buy without any question about whether a licence at the time of the carve-up had been converted into an integral part of the tenancy. It is peculiar that only in Mr. Bacon's case was the land apparently not incorporated with the garden because of Greenwich council's decision, taken with hindsight 15 years after Mr. Bacon had taken over the tenancy.

During the past two months I have requested Greenwich council to provide a detailed explanation of what happened at each stage. I asked the council whether it would produce the written evidence of any licence arrangement. No such evidence has been forthcoming. I asked a senior official of the council for a copy of any legal advice given to the borough council. I was informed that I could have a copy if the council members agreed, but might not be permitted to quote it. I asked whether I could have copies of any advice given contrary to the story I am now telling the House. Presumably there is nothing wrong with knowing the advice on which the council based its case. I have not received that copy of the advice.

I have been told that if the issue developed into a county court action, which the council would be required to take against the occupier of the land to get the land back—that is necessary because the tenants' charter gives protection to tenants—there is a prospect that the council would succeed. The trouble is that that action would cost each party about £3,000. In effect, to test Mr. Bacon's rights would cost an extra £6,000. This matter involves only a small piece of land. The council believes it was licensed separately from his tenancy until 1981 when his application to buy came forward.

I have strong views about Greenwich council's actions in this case. I make it plain that what I am saying is not partisan. I would say exactly what I am saying now if I were trying to help a tenant in a local authority area controlled by my Conservative friends.

Greenwich council is a public authority and one expects such an authority to maintain a certain standard of behaviour and strict observance of the law on matters such as the right to buy. Sadly, for the first two years after the legislation on that subject was passed, this public authority generally did not do so. That was a purely political decision. This action on the right to buy was started by mistake, probably during a general period of obstruction. I believe that someone made a decision without searching for the evidence. Perhaps someone searched for the evidence but did not find it.

The central part of my representations on behalf of Mr. Bacon is that there is no evidence that at the time that he became the tenant of 6 Periton road there was any question of a licence. The council, he and his neighbours did not know of it. There was nothing from the person occupying the home that abuts the part of his garden that Greenwich council now believes is his, not Mr. Bacon's, in 1966, 1967, 1968 or any of the years up to 1981.

It seems that, after perhaps some deliberate political obstruction and then possible a genuine mistake, Greenwich council forgot its duty to Mr. Bacon. Its duty to him is not to use threats of legal action or obstruction to deny him the rights, which I assert are his, to continue not just to occupy the house but to own the land that it was the duty of Greenwich council to sell to him when he made his right-to-buy application. One of the sad features about the case is that it can sour relations between the ratepayer and the council and possibly between the Member of Parliament and the council. Such a case certainly takes up a great deal of the time of council officials and probably council members which might be used to greater advantage.

Greenwich council and myself are of one mind in trying to improve conditions for tenants generally, although we have different views about the level of rates. We share a common interest in the welfare of the ratepayers and the residents, the owner-occupiers and tenants who live in the London borough of Greenwich.

Greenwich council has a high reputation to protect. I do not wantonly try to drag its name in the mud. I contacted the council in February and said that I had heard what for me was a worrying story. I said that I hoped to hear what proposal it would make to restore the position to what it used to be. The land had to be part of the purchase. I was, I thought, co-operative; I told the council that I would not say anything in public until the matter had been reviewed. After about a month, it was revealed by the housing sub-committee. Unfortunately, it did not feel that it was right to reverse the view that it had taken, contrary to all available evidence, some time before.

I then wrote to Greenwich council and said: I believe there is no evidence that Greenwich Council reserved part of the land when Mr. E. Bacon was granted his tenancy. If I am wrong please let me have that evidence by the time I proposed to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate. It is perhaps an illustration of how seriously I view the matter that this is the first Adjournment debate that I have had in my nine years' membership of the House. My letter continued: I believe that the only advice you could have given the Council and its committees was that the land was his and should be his. If you gave contrary advice, please may I have it by Friday. I said that I believed that it was wrong of Greenwich council to use its financial power to institute court proceedings which would use ratepayers' money in an attempt to seek what could, to me, be only a perverse and unlikely court decision—that Mr. E. Bacon would have to give up the disputed land. I continued: I would like to receive by Friday any evidence that I am wrong. If you are able to send me legal advice which, although supporting my contention, may not properly be used in the House, perhaps you should delay it until after Friday. I do not think that a Member of Parliament could have taken a quieter approach. I was quiet but determined. I am determined in this case. When a public authority, in my view wrongly—and wrongly even to a more impartial person than I am—pursues a doubtful line of argument, created after the event—the tenancy for Mr. Bacon in 1966—it should not use its might to put at risk what this House clearly granted to any tenant, that is to say, the right to buy with his house the land which had been let with it at the time that he started his tenancy.

My hon. Friend has listened patiently. I think that his Department has shown perhaps as much forbearance as I have in dealing with the London borough of Greenwich. I hope that he will accept it from me that I am not making a partisan attack on the borough. I am trying to redress Mr. Bacon's grievance. I believe that I have pursued it properly, and I intend to continue pursuing it in every way that I legitimately can until I am satisfied that common or garden justice is done, in addition to the possible pursuit in other ways of legal justice. I hope that the end of this tale will be that Mr. Bacon has his land, that Greenwich council will not feel that it has lost face, and that the council and I will have shared in trying to restore to a ratepayer and a previous tenant of the borough the land which has been his since he took over the tenancy. The crucial issue is whether it was part of the tenancy or not. I believe that clearly it was.

2.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

The House has listened with care to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) and to his moving explanation of the problems that have been experienced by his constituent, Mr. Bacon.

I am sure the House will share the view that it has been a curious and sorry tale. I applaud my hon. Friend's attempt to resolve the matter for his constituent and bring to public attention what he clearly believes to be an injustice. It has been wholly in accordance with his reputation as a first-class constituency Member of Parliament. Mr. Bacon is fortunate to have such a powerful advocate on his behalf.

My hon. Friend's constituent is in dispute with the London borough of Greenwich about the area of land which he believes should have been conveyed to him as part of his right-to-buy purchase. Although he has successfully purchased the property in which he is resident, Mr. Bacon understandably contends that he should also have been given title to a small piece of land at the bottom of his garden which has apparently been in his use and that of his family for a very long period.

The status of the dispute between Mr. Bacon and Greenwich council is not exactly clear. The dispute remains sub judice as far as the council is concerned. Therefore, the House will appreciate that I should not comment on the case, nor express any view on the issues involved, except in general terms, given the possibility, as I believe is the position, that the matter will come to court in the near future.

What I can say is that, under the right-to-buy provisions of the Housing Act 1980, there have been a number of cases where tenants seeking to buy their homes have complained that land they were using, as they believed, under their tenancy was not being included in their right-to-buy purchase and was instead being withheld by their landlord. The land in dispute has included garages in or next to the house, gardens often on so-called open plan estates, allotment or orchard land next to the house, pathways and passageways and so forth—and, indeed, in my hon. Friend's case, apparently a gatepost.

The position under the 1980 Act is that a tenant is entitled to buy all the land included in his secure tenancy. Section 50(2) provides that land let together with a dwelling-house shall be treated as part of the dwelling house unless the land is agricultural land exceeding two acres". This means that any such land is included in the secure tenancy of the dwelling house. It also means that where a garage or other land is let under a separate tenancy to a secure tenant—this is not an uncommon occurance—it may still be within the secure tenancy and hence come within the right to buy.

Whether, as a matter of law, land let under a separate agreement in any particular case is "land let together with" will depend on the facts of that case, and there is a good deal of case law, built up in the context of the Rent Acts. which in the Deprtment's view is relevant. Such disputes as arise however, may, apart from the application of case law, prove difficult to resolve because lettings by local authorities of land or facilities associated with the dwelling have tended to be informal or were made some time in the past.

In either case the position is frequently encountered that plans showing the precise extent of land let to the tenant were not provided, so that there remains room for debate about what is and is not the present extent of the tenancy for the purpose of implementing the right to buy.

Partly to cater for this problem, and partly because we recognise that secure tenants might be occupying land adjacent to the dwelling house under licence, we also provided in section 3(4) of the 1980 Act for land to be included in a right-to-buy sale by agreement where it was used for the purposes of the dwelling house.

The concept of trying to reach agreement with a local authority has not always proved practical, however; unfortunately, any provision that has allowed a landlord unfettered discretion to reject a tenant's request has proved to be of little help to tenants when dealing with an authority that has apparently set out to make life difficult for those wishing to exercise their right to buy. Such has seemingly been the case with the London borough of Greenwich.

Disputes of the sort that have arisen have undoubtedly caused tenants much anguish and distress. I can best illustrate by quoting from one of a number of letters received from tenants of the London borough of Greenwich aggrieved at the restrictions imposed by the council on the sale of garages: We appealed against the decision not to allow us to buy the garage on the grounds that it was built in our garden, the whole of which had formed part of the original tenancy agreement … the garage is only 7 ft from our house, with a window at the back looking onto the house, so a considerable amount of privacy and security will be lost if it is let outside the family. Our case was duly considered by the Housing Committee in February, but again we were refused the chance to buy the garage … the garage was built at our request … We made the decision to go ahead with the house purchase even without the garage because after 18 months of contant effort and haggling to establish our legal rights we were beginning to feel that we were getting nowhere". I am happy to say that the result in a recent and similar complaint in which my hon. Friend represented the views of a constituent to Greenwich council was altogether different from that which I have just recounted, and a solution was rapidly and readily provided by the authority. One can only hope that this marks a change of heart on their part.

Mr. Bottomley

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the case of at least one tenant to whom Greenwich council will not sell a long leasehold tenancy house although the tenant owns the freehold. That is another sign that there is more work to be done, and my hon. Friend and I will have to continue doing it.

Sir George Young

It is depressing news that the obdurate attitude of Greenwich council persists. In a moment I shall say something about a provision in the Housing and Building Control Bill that might bring some relief in some cases. It is none the less the case that in the light of experience, principally gained in respect of Greenwich, we have decided to repeal section 3(4) of the 1980 Act and to replace it with another under which the tenant will be able to require to be included in the right-to-buy purchase any land used for the purpose of the dwelling house where it is reasonable in all circumstances for the land to be so included.

That provision is contained in the Housing and Building Control Bill which the House debated yesterday. We believe that it will get over the difficulty of whether land forms part of the secure tenancy: as long as the tenant can show that he has used the land for the purposes of the dwelling house and that it is reasonable to include it in the purchase, he will be able to buy it. The onus will then be upon the landlord to establish the contrary.

My hon. Friend has commented on the record of the London borough of Greenwich in implementing the right to buy, and I can certainly confirm that the council had, and apparently still has, a history of implementing the relevant provisions in a manner which I would regard as unhelpful to its tenants. I could catalogue a range of problems which have been reported to the Department. The council has, for example, only recently derived and begun to implement what it hopes will be a solution to a long-standing dispute with its right-to-buy purchasers about the imposition of service charges on freehold sales—a matter on which my hon. Friend brought a deputation to see me.

We have always been doubtful whether the requirement to pay the charge such as has been levied accords with the provisions of the 1980 Act. My Department has discussed the question at length with representatives of the council. Again, it is as a result of the experience of dealing with the problems of service charges at Greenwich that we have brought forward in the Housing and Building Control Bill proposals which will provide right-to-buy purchasers with further protection and recourse against the imposition of unreasonable charges.

I commend again the initiative of my hon. Friend in championing the right of his constituents to have the rights which Parliament meant them to have under the right-to-buy legislation. I know that his constituents are grateful for his work on their behalf.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

Before I put the Question, may I wish hon. Members and our staff, who serve us so well, a happy Easter recess.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock till 25 April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 5 April.